The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter arrived at the tail end of the golden age of Shaw Brothers kung-fu. It is the second to last film directed by Liu Chia-Liang and, in some ways, his ultimate statement on the era (his actual final film, Disciples of the 36th Chamber, was a sequel for which he reportedly had little passion). His penchant for comedy is on display here as is his incredible emphasis on wire-work mixed with the raw talent of his stars. The choreography is stunning throughout and the spiritual bent as earnest as every other film Liu made for the studio. Martial arts films almost always end on large, complex action sequences, but the climax of Eight Diagram must be seen to be believed. It’s a real “shit your pants with your mouth wide open” battle, with a gruesome yet hysterical twist to non-lethal monk justice.
Shaw Icon Gordon Liu — whose work with Liu Chia-Liang included The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Dirty Ho, among others — is in fine form here as Fifth Brother, one of two survivors from the noble Yang family that found itself betrayed by the Emperor it swore its life and legacy to protect. The film opens with their clan’s final battle and sets the tone pretty quickly: This is the 90-minute magnum opus of pole fighting and it’s gory as all hell. Five of the seven Yang brothers are killed, with the exception of Fifth Brother and Sixth Brother (Alexander Fu Sheng, in his final filmed role). Fifth escapes and decides to become a monk. Sixth returns home to his mother and sisters with news of their family’s defeat, only to slowly lose his mind due to the trauma.
The only problem with Eight Diagram can’t really be laid at the feet of the filmmakers. Fu Sheng died in a car accident during filming, when all that was left to work on was his role in the ending of the story. It was purportedly a dark ending, too: Fifth Brother would be forced to kill him. That’s hardly the story you want to tell when your friend, a stalwart part of the studio, died an untimely death. As it is, Sixth Brother basically disappears after serving as a major dramatic crux of the story. It’s a little odd, but it’s also the only elegant solution.
Fortunately, Liu Chia-Liang makes up for it with the massive final setpiece. It’s the sort that made me say “holy shit” aloud in a darkened room alone after midnight. The structure of the fight is filled with reversals and ingenious prop design, and of characters fulfilling satisfying destinies and meting out harsh justice. It starts with Fifth Brother utilizing a cart of bamboo in an unexpected and glorious fashion and only gets wilder and wilder. It’s important to note that a subplot of the film involves Eighth Sister (star Kara Hui) searching for her long-lost Fifth Brother and becoming part of the action. Although she’s turned into a captive briefly, she, too, participates in delivering martial justice.
When Arrow Video got the Region A rights to so much of the Shaw catalog, it was an open question about which films they would feature in their series of massive Shawscope sets and which would receive standalone releases. It’s a no-brainer that The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is given this much individual love and attention. Of all the martial arts films in this era of Hong Kong cinema, this sits atop the pack.
This new release includes a brand-new 2K restoration from the original camera negative on par with Arrow’s other recent Shaw work. These are truly beautiful films that have always been somewhat difficult to see in decent shape here in the United States. From an archival standpoint, Arrow (and 88 Films) are doing incredible work giving these stories their due. On the audio front, the disc contains lossless Cantonese, Mandarin and English mono audio, with subtitles and hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub.
On the special-features front, a short film appreciation by film critic Tony Rayns is included, which provides invaluable context for fans new to the Shaw sphere. There are also alternate opening credits, trailers, interviews with Liu and actresses Lily Li and Yeung Ching-ching (from 2004), and a tribute film to Fu Sheng. The first pressing of this release will also include a booklet by Terrence J. Brady.